UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 1999
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Of Man and Machine

Of Man and Machine

Airplane safety is a field of study for human factors investigator

Human factors, typically called "ergonomics" outside the U.S., explores human-machine relationships in everything from work processes to quality control to safety inspections. The discipline began during World War II, Drury says, "when the machines being designed were failing because of the people who were operating them. For example, you could build an airplane that would withstand more g-forces than the pilot. You could build a faster tank, but soldiers couldn't drive it at top speed because they couldn't hold on to the controls. You could build sonar and radar to detect submarines and airplanes, but human operators didn't have the stamina to operate them effectively for long periods of time."

Today Drury is on the cutting edge of research into the causes of inefficiencies and errors in human-machine interaction. He is working to help design new processes that capitalize on the strengths of both highly automated, high-technology machines and the intelligence of their human operators. Not surprisingly, an important field of study for human factors is airplane safety. Currently Drury is the principal investigator on an FAA-funded study examining the effectiveness of inspectors in detecting cracks in airplanes. While cracks are almost never implicated in commercial accidents, some spectacular exceptions—including a 1988 incident in Hawaii when a pilot made a near-miraculous landing after the top of the passenger compartment came off in flight-make effective detection of cracks imperative.

Working with Sandia National Laboratories, Drury's research team has videotaped inspectors examining an out-of-service aircraft with known cracks. Along with documenting the accuracy of each inspection, the researchers observe inspection techniques and evaluate such factors as lighting, accessibility, the presence of painted surfaces, and inspector stress and fatigue, which can make particular cracks somewhat difficult to detect. By linking the characteristics of individual cracks with the level of difficulty in detecting them, Drury's team will help develop new standards for inspections aimed at detecting cracks before they pose a hazard. Drury brings a wealth of experience to the project. A native of Skegness, England, he was manager of ergonomics for Pilkington Glass in the U.K. for three years. "There, one of the big issues was, 'How do you find defects in glass?'" he says. "You've got machines that can find them, and you've got humans who can find them-neither of which works really well." According to Drury, machines are better at repetitive, rule-driven tasks, and humans are much better generalists. "You tend to employ humans where you need some intelligence in the system, and machines where you can use rules that describe exactly what it is you're looking for. What I've been doing is looking for ways to use humans and machines together to get a better solution than either can produce alone." While he is working to make the skies a bit friendlier, Drury also has some practical tips for airline passengers who want to take some personal responsibility for their own safety. The first rule, he says, is simple: "Wear your safety belt at all times. As with a car, that's the biggest single thing you can do to increase your life span." Another, less obvious point: "Wear sensible shoes. And don't wear clothing that's going to unnecessarily restrict you if you have to get off in a hurry."

Of course, human factors research has many applications for those who spend their working hours earthbound-and even deskbound. Drury recently cochaired a National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council steering committee examining work-related disorders ranging from back injuries to carpal tunnel syndrome. A contentious subject with implications for everyone from employees and employers to insurers and lawmakers, work-related disorders are said to cost U.S. industry $13–20 billion annually in absences and compensation claims. Drury's committee reviewed the current research based on work-related disorders and evaluated the quality of science used to support the existence of these disorders. Delivered to Capitol Hill in September 1998, the committee's report found clear evidence that people in high-stress jobs doing physically demanding, repetitive tasks are more likely to experience work-related disorders. "What you're trying to do," Drury explains, "is use the human body as a special-purpose machine, when in fact it's a superb general-purpose machine. If you're going to use it as a special-purpose machine, you've got to take the trouble to design that job very specifically." While such disorders are primarily associated with working conditions, Drury cautions that any repetitive activity, even a hobby, can lead to chronic aches and pains. And individual differences in physical ability and condition, age and pre-existing conditions, such as arthritis, also affect a person's susceptibility.

Once again, he offers some simple hints to lower the risk of injury: "Don't do one thing all day," he advises. "Get up and walk around." Another tip: Organize your workspace. Drury's own office features a sloping desk so he won't compress and strain his spine by leaning over his work; an elevated footrest under the desk, again to promote better posture; and good lighting focused directly on his work. A final trick: removing his desk drawer to avoid cramping his legs. He has brought this practical, results-oriented approach to many Western New York businesses as the founder and former executive director of the Center for Industrial Effectiveness. The center provides human engineering assistance to a wide variety of companies, from national and international firms like General Mills, Dunlop and Motorola to local businesses, such as Lou-Retta's Custom Chocolates. His hands-on philosophy and excellent relations with area firms also inform his teaching. Rather than burdening students with reams of statistics, he arms them with the proper methodology, then sends them into local workplaces. "Everyone is their own expert on human factors because they're human," says Drury. "This way, students are out in the world making observations and collecting data, watching real people do real things." Just as important, he adds, smiling, "It's fun."

Blair Boone, Ph.D. '84, is a Buffalo-based freelance writer.

Relevant Internet Resources
Center for Industrial Effectiveness
Federal Aviation Administration
National Coalition on Ergonomics
Professional Ergonomic Solutions
Sandia National Laboratories

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